The Royal Tenebaums is a masterfully-executed, unconventional little film starring some of our best actors, all at the top of their game, all playing characters I wanted to strangle by the middle of the picture. It’s an odd feeling to so thoroughly admire the craft with which a film was made, while still hoping for a Roland Emmerich-sized catastrophe to obliterate the city in which these characters live.
Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is a bastard. Not in the literal sense, since the film doesn’t go into his parentage, but he did up and leave his family one day and stayed away for years. His wife, Ethel (Anjelica Huston), stayed behind, raised their kids and fell in love with the family accountant (Danny Glover). The children, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Richie (Luke Wilson) and Chas (Ben Stiller) were all brilliant prodigies who all flamed out early and never lived up to their potential, Margot in writing, Richie in professional tennis and Chas in finance. All three live at home with Ethel and have raised being messed up to a rarefied art form.
Royal wants back into his family’s life, not so much out of devotion or guilt but simply because he’s run out of money. At first he fakes a fatal illness and then, when no one buys it, insists he just wants to make up for lost time and get to know his grandchildren, who are fast on their way to becoming as neurotic as their father, Chas, who understandably hates his own father with a Vesuvian passion.
Also orbiting this chaotic family are Eli Cash (co-writer Owen Wilson), who is a sort of the “fourth Tanenbaum” and a stoned writer of bad westerns, and Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), Margot’s psychologist husband, who seems to know his patients far better than his own wife.
I think what keeps me from sympathizing with any of these characters is the fact that they all seem to be unambitious lumps. Everyone here seems to be completely passive. The only character whose actions drive this story is Royal and, for the subversive gusto with which Hackman plays him, he can’t seem to inspire much of a reaction from his screwed up family.
Again, this is a well-made and highly original movie. Shame they couldn’t have populated it with at least one character in whose company I wanted to spend two hours.